What is brewing in Kerala Congress?

K M Mani (Pic: Rajeev Prasad)

 

Within a month of Chairman K M Mani’s passing away, the power struggle to gain control of Kerala Congress (M) has become intense. While, on the one hand, ‘Working Chairman’ P J Joseph is in no mood to let heir apparent Jose K Mani takeover as the next Chairman and leader of the Parliamentary party, the latter has been playing his moves strategically to outwit Joseph in this game of thrones.

Just as he outwitted P J Joseph following a tug of war over the Kottayam seat in the Lok Sabha election, Mani junior seems to be plotting his moves well in advance. It’s good to recall that the K M Mani and P J Joseph factions of Kerala Congress had merged in 2010 at the insistence of the powerful Catholic Church. Back then, the division of organisational positions were unequal with a 2:1 advantage to the Mani faction. Since then, K M Mani (and his faction) has virtually had their say in all matters and P J Joseph was reduced to a pale shadow of his former self.

The P J Joseph faction was further weakened on the eve of the 2016 assembly elections when Francis George, son of founder-chairman K M George, walked away with his supporters including leaders like Antony Raju, K C Joseph and P C Joseph. All this while, it seemed PJ Joseph had resigned to the idea of playing second fiddle and his interactions with the press became rare. Nevertheless, Joseph was active behind-the-scenes—ensuring the party did not join the Left Democratic Front (LDF) after the Kerala Congress (M) formally severed ties with the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 2017.

After playing a bit role for nearly a decade, Joseph became suddenly vocal in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in 2019 demanding an extra seat for the party. He stepped up pressure for the lone Kottayam seat in the party’s quota, throwing his hat in the ring. This move came as a major surprise to analysts who had nearly written off Joseph as a spent force with age catching up with him.

P J Joseph

The Congress’ invisible hand in Joseph’s public rebellion notwithstanding, what gave him extra impetus was the opening he sensed following K M Mani’s failing health. Although it wasn’t being reported by the press in Kerala, it was public knowledge for a while that K M Mani’s health was deteriorating fast. Despite throwing caution to the wind and issuing threats through the media, P J Joseph was eventually outwitted by Jose K Mani with K M Mani’s blessings.

First, in a calculated move, the younger Mani utilized his advantage in the party’s organisational structure to get the district presidents of the party to make their recommendations in choosing a nominee of the Mani faction to contest in Kottayam. Later, after Mani senior seemed to dither on the choice of candidate at a meeting of the Steering Committee of the party, and a consensus seemingly reached to yield to P J Joseph’s choice on the Kottayam seat, the candidature of Thomas Chazhikadan was announced dramatically late at night through a brief press note.

While many assumed a split was round the corner, P J Joseph beat a hasty retreat and chose to bid his time. Although he did give a few angry reactions to the media in the wake of Thomas Chazhikdan being named as the Kottayam candidate, he fell in line after a day and even announced his readiness to campaign for Chazhikadan. Within days, K M Mani passed away in Kochi.

One month later, P J Joseph and Jose K Mani are once again face-to-face trying to wrest control of the party. While Jose K Mani has a clear upper hand when it comes to numbers in decision-making committees, the older man is trying to win over senior leaders within the party to his side to checkmate his younger challenger.

A key factor in P J Joseph’s favour is the vacancy in the Pala assembly seat and the number of leaders vying for it even as Jose K Mani is angling to get his wife Nisha to contest from the family bastion. Joy Abraham, the KC (M) general secretary in charge of the organisation and former Rajya Sabha member, is among the hopefuls along with KC Youth Front leader Saji Manjakadambil. With both Abraham and Manjakadambil seemingly slanting towards Joseph, the position of veteran Deputy Chairman C F Thomas will be crucial.

Jose K Mani is firm on grabbing the Parliamentary party leader’s position. He is also looking to assume the position of Party Chairman or Working Chairman if P J Joseph is made the leader of the Parliamentary party as a compromise. On the contrary, P J Joseph is angling for the leader’s position while simultaneously taking over as Party Chairman.

Jose K Mani

A compromise formula floated by Joseph is to remain the Working Chairman as well as the Parliamentary party leader with Deputy Chairman C F Thomas elevated to the position of Party Chairman. However, Jose K Mani will not accept this formula as this would mean losing control of the party as P J Joseph will wrest control at least in the short term if this formula works out.

A wary Congress is closely watching these events from the side lines along with the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) as they will want to avert a split in the Syrian Christian outfit with only a year to go for the local body polls and assembly elections scheduled in 2021. If it still leads to a split, there might be an opportunity for the faction led by PJ Joseph to remain with the UDF with some Mani faction leaders too likely to make a switch to the Joseph faction if things were to escalate.

The LDF and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) are also observing the power struggle keenly with the LDF likely to back any possibility of a merger of the Joseph faction with the Francis George-led Kerala Congress (Democratic), its latest constituent. A senior leader of KC (Democratic) told The Kochi Post that it’s premature to talk about a possibility of any realignment at this juncture.

As for the NDA, although there is no possibility of P J Joseph entertaining the thought of working with the BJP, the presence of P C George and P C Thomas, prominent Kerala Congress leaders in the past, in the NDA ranks, is what gives them hope.

According to a circular issued by General Secretary Joy Abraham on May 9, P J Joseph will hold temporary charge of Chairman till a new Chairman is duly elected. Abraham stated that he was only following the party Constitution in issuing the circular. After a party meeting in Thiruvananthapuram on May 15, followed by the marking of the “41st day” of K M Mani’s passing away in Pala on May 17, things will get clearer as the temporary calm is likely to give way to an all-out slugfest to gain control of the party.

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